Saturday, 24 July 2004

Labor law and grad students

Brett Marston isn’t too impressed with the National Labor Relations Board’s decision last week that removed the right of graduate students to organize at private universities. He writes:

I don’t want to be uncharitable, but the majority seems to have little interest in the function of labor law. They seem to view it as a collection of information about congressional views on categories of relationships between people rather than as an attempt to reduce labor conflicts. For the majority, the relevant question is whether TA’s have a primarily “economic” or a primarily “educational” relationship to the university; if it’s the latter, then the administrators win, because educational relationships are not covered by the rules.

In contrast, the dissent seems to indicate that the function of labor law is to provide a regularization of existing disputes that are characterized by the unionizing participants themselves as labor disputes. It’s the disputes themselves that matter, not the formal relationship categories that Congress has helped create.

My suspicion, however, is that TA unionization doesn’t “reduce labor conflicts” at all; instead, it is a vehicle for graduate students to obtain greater benefits from their employer/educator than they might otherwise receive (by bargaining collectively, rather than on an individual basis), which seems rather orthogonal to the idea of “conflict.” If anything, having a union would seem to create a system by which disputes between graduate students and the administration would be increased and intensified, by being channeled into adversarial activities such as “work to rule” and strikes—events that wouldn’t occur if disgruntled students had individual disputes with the administration.

On the other hand, I was raised in an era and a political culture hostile to unions, and grew up cheering on Margaret Thatcher as she pummelled Britain’s excessively powerful labor unions into submission, so I could be wrong.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.


I grew up cheering on Ronnie Reagan (for what it’s worth) but the question turns on whether you think it’s accurate to say that “disgruntled students” who have “individual disputes” are at the root of already existing grad student unionization efforts. Folks at Yale had a strike even before the NLRB was clearly on the union’s side, and I doubt that the issue will go away at Yale (and other places) even after the Board’s latest ruling. That’s the main reason to be skeptical of the Board majority’s depressingly positivistic and mechanistic approach to labor law. In reading the law mechanistically—as well as writing their own policy preferences into the law—the Board didn’t do anyone any favors in the long term.


Chris: If you were cheering on Reagan and Thatcher for union-busting, you started cheering politicians at a really young age, didn’t you? You were what, 12, when GHWB became president?


Brock: What can I say? I was a political junkie from a young age.

One thought that occurs to me on the unionization business is it might be a backdoor way to reduce the overproduction of Ph.Ds, by concentrating limited funds on fewer students (through increased stipends).

I also think unionization is more of an issue in disciplines (English, history) that have way too many Ph.D students to begin with; political science seems relatively close to having supply and demand in check, though there are subfields where that plainly isn’t the case (notably, about half of the American positions on eJobs seem to be for racial and ethnic politics at the moment).


“it might be a backdoor way to reduce the overproduction of Ph.Ds, by concentrating limited funds on fewer students (through increased stipends).”

At Yale, GESO made this explicit claim in the mid- to late 1990s. It makes sense to me!

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